Task force: Tree canopy darkens parts of city

A task force report, originally prompted by pedestrian traffic deaths along University Avenue, has driven the Gainesville City Commission to consider changes to its codes regulating trees and street lights.

The task force, which included staff experts in public safety, community development and urban forestry, was charged with looking at poorly lit areas of the city and offering recommendations to balance the preservation of the city’s tree canopy with improving the nighttime lighting.

Originally formed in February 2021 following fatal car-pedestrian collisions on University Avenue, the cross-disciplinary task force reported back to the commission’s general policy committee Thursday with recommendations that included changes to the land development code and more frequent trimming of trees around streetlights.

The task force first selected specific areas to look at based on overlaying maps of pedestrian-involved crashes and violent crimes and then examined lighting issues within those focus areas, said Capt. Jamie Kurnick, the Gainesville Police Department’s chief inspector and GPD’s representative to the task force.

Areas around the University Avenue/13th Street corridor and along Waldo Road showed up as “hot spots” for both pedestrian-involved crashes and for violent crimes, such as robberies and assaults.

“We were trying to find a correlation,” Kurnick said. “If we had better lighting, would we be able to affect both [crime and crashes]?”

The group then drove after dark through well and poorly lit areas in midtown, downtown, the Porters Quarters and Lincoln Estates neighborhoods as well as the area around 1700 Northeast Eighth Ave., which is known colloquially as “The Slab.” 

What they found were areas with increased walkability and pedestrian traffic, but also areas where the city’s celebrated and shade-creating tree canopy also was interfering with street lights and well-lit sidewalks.

According to the task force report, many dark areas of the city have sufficient street lighting, but it’s blocked by tree growth. The tree growth into the lights is a result of infrequent tree trimming as well as city land development codes that trees be planted adjacent to the street lights with no guidance as to the scale of street light relative to the trees. 

“What we see is: after five to 10 years of the live oak being in a place within 10 feet of a light pole, the light pole is now the live oak,” Kurnick said. “You can’t see the light pole anymore. It’s in the tree.”

Lawrence Calderon, a planner in the sustainable development department and a member of the task force, said a lot of things compete for space in the city’s right-of-way areas including sidewalks, frontage and street trees, signs, fire hydrants, street lights and Gainesville Regional Utilities infrastructure.

“One of the things that came to us very, very strongly when we did this walk was the lack of space between the curb and the buildings,” Calderon said. “And one of the things we want to do is try to work looking at wider sidewalks … [and] how we lay out the various infrastructure that occurs with the right-of-way and try to control it in a better way.”

Phil Mann, acting assistant city manager and a member of the task force, said as the group looked at the areas in need of better lighting, it also looked at existing ordinances and processes, such as the tree trimming schedule, that prevented better lighting.

GPD density map of traffic crashes and violent crimes 2021
GPD density map of traffic crashes and violent crimes 2021

“One of the things that amazed me was we have an ordinance that prevents light trespass so our own ordinance prevents the high-rise building from having lights on the side that light up the sidewalk,” Mann said.

The task force also discovered the city does not have a lot of coordination between the official review of tree plans and the review of street light plans, Mann said.

“It’s dark in many places, and a lot of it is our fault,” Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said. “We have made that because of the ordinances.” 

According to the task force report, the city’s newest multi-story buildings create areas where there is little lighting – a result of the no “light trespass” conditions in the development code.

“You look at the new buildings, and they are darker than the buildings that have been there 50 years and that shouldn’t be the case,” Hayes-Santos said.

The task force recommendations included:

  • Amending the land development code to require that the placement of trees be coordinated with the placement of street lights and other infrastructure and require landscape plans include lighting plans for both the building site and the adjacent right of way.
  • Requiring commercial, mixed-used and multi-family developments to use pedestrian scale street lights, placed every 50 feet, that would allow the trees to grow above the street lights. The trees could continue to provide shade to the sidewalk areas without interfering with the nighttime lighting.
  • Dropping the no “light trespass” requirement and instead requiring new developments and redevelopment projects provide pedestrian scale lighting on or near the side of the buildings to provide light to public sidewalks and pedestrian areas.
  • Trimming the trees around the street lights more frequently.

Currently, the city trims trees around street lights every three to four years, Mann said.

It would additionally cost the city approximately $252,000 to trim the trees every three years, $378,000 to trim every other year, and $755,000 to trim every year, according to task force estimates.

Hayes-Santos said he supports more frequent trimming and compared the removal of vegetation overgrowth in Florida to the need for snow removal in Northern cities – a given of the regional climate.

“We’re paying [Gainesville Regional Utilities] for those lights, if they’re covered in vegetation or not,” Hayes-Santos said. “When they’re covered with vegetation, we’re not getting any use out of them.”

The commission approved the recommendations unanimously and forwarded the suggested land development code changes to the city’s Plan Board and directed staff to include a budget discussion item to pay for more frequent trimming of tree canopies around streetlights.

Former Commissioner Warren Nielsen spoke during the public participation portion of the discussion and urged the current commission to act quickly on the task force’s recommendations. 

He said he was especially concerned about areas around UF such as South 13th Street and the north side of University Avenue, saying the lack of lighting meant groups of students showed up as “barely focused silhouettes.”

“Pedestrians make the city, and if they’re not safe and comfortable we don’t have a city,” Nielsen said.

Gainesville resident Tana Silva also spoke to the commission Thursday and asked them to protect the city’s trees. She said has seen old oak trees cut down across the city’s neighborhoods.

“I think you need to take special care with trees as an integral part of our city,” Silva said. “They protect us. All the beautiful benefits they give us, especially in terms of walkability… I would be very careful before going with some widespread plan to favor lights over trees.”

 

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